I work directly with the C-Suite leadership of organizations undertaking large and mega-projects, and the clients I currently work with require strict confidentiality. This is a case study example from previous work and research.
In negotiations we try to get to win-win, but complex conflicts are not negotiations and should not be treated as such. The goal in a complex conflict is the ensure everyone loses, but does so willingly, based on the future state we create for them.
1. Conflict as Natural System - "Look deep into nature, and then
you will understand everything better." - Albert Einstein
By combining approaches from UWaterloo's department of systems design engineering, UColumbia's department of psychology, and UStanford's design school, we can treat complex conflicts like any other natural system. Just like this murmurating flock of starlings, a conflict is dynamic and unpredictable so you cannot control it. However, you can influence it by focusing on the patterns of interaction between the parties to the conflict.
2. Identify All the Parties - Make sure we have accounted for all the parties to the conflict, no matter how peripheral they seem now.
These are all the current parties to the conflict. This includes the various provincial, regional, and federal governments, the pro- and con- First Nations, environmental groups, Kinder Morgan, the shipping and rail companies, the oil producers, and - importantly - the marine spill response groups, which are going to be key to the potential resolution.
3. Identify the Patters of Interaction - Map out how the parties interact with each other, based on their goals, preferences, and how they relate and identify (or stereotype) the others.
When you map the patterns of interaction based on goals, preferences, and how the parties identify each other, you can start to see how this is very much like any other complex natural system. Those patterns of interaction are constantly changing, and the net effect of all those interactions is what creates the conflict. When those patterns of interaction become inflexible and rigid, the conflict becomes increasingly intractable and difficult to resolve. By identifying the interactions from the perspective of each participant, we can start to look at where we can intervene to introduce new patterns.
4. Find the Current Material Power Structure - The best way to focus thinking about a conflict is to separate parties into those with power, and those who merely have influence.
Oftentimes our resolution efforts are unfocused or directed at the parties who are influential but have no material power. By that we mean parties who can make a decisive impact to end or significantly alter the conflict. This changes over time, as you would expect in any dynamic natural system. For example, at one point in the Kinder Morgan case the regulator (National Energy Board) had the power to stop the project entirely. However, once they submitted the findings, recommendations, and conditions, the NEB no longer held any material power. Similarly, the environmental group are very influential, particularly with the First Nations they ally themselves with. But the environmental groups have to material power to stop the project directly. In the current situation (May 2018), the power structure is between the BC, AB, and Federal Governments because of their regulatory and political power. The First Nations against the project have power via their court actions. What is also interesting in the marine spill response groups. They are at the receiving end of power, but they also may hold the key to resolution.
5. Prototype the Future State - Once we know where the power structure is, we can find a common objective that each power group could potentially support.
Parties in current, material conflict will not see eye-to-eye, so don't bother trying. Instead, find a common objective they could potentially support, and build a future around that objective. In this case, all the material power parties should be able to support the marine spill response function. There are hundreds of large ships that pass through the vicinity of the BC coast, and independent of this project there is a need to increase the ability to respond to a disaster. The federal government has some jurisdiction in this area. The BC government can see this as a revenue stream, and as a way to gain the support of the very powerful green lobby that helped put the current Premier in power. The First Nations on the coast can be a key player in this program, and it would be an outstanding way for them to participate in a practical and acceptable way. Kinder Morgan has already indicated its willingness to support this, and the Alberta government can leverage it to their advantage as well. This future state is a strong alternative to the current situation because there are aspects everyone in the power structure can support.
6. Create New Patterns of Interaction - By creating new ways for the power structure to interact, we can create entirely new patterns of interaction and get the overall system out of its current state.
As we discussed, conflicts become entrenched when the patterns of interaction don't respond to new inputs, so the key to influencing where the system goes is to shake up those interactions. This is where we start re-introducing the influencers to the analysis. An excellent way to do that is to get the power parties working towards something they might have in common - in this case the marine spill response. These new patterns (in blue) are the strategic objective to direct resolution tactics - through communications, engagement, and other approaches. For example, we might want to create tactics around the strategy of getting the environmental groups to align with the pro- and con-First Nations group in supporting the marine spill response function. At the same time, another strategy would involve getting the BC, Federal and GVRD governments aligned as well.
7. Manage the Disruption - All design solutions are disruptive by nature, and they need to be managed as such.
Designers and other innovators know their work is inherently disruptive, and this example is no different. They key now is to ensure we are getting solid advice from experts on how to manage that disruption to our advantage, because we about to create an entirely new future state. Instead of getting to win-win as you might in negotiations, the key in a complex conflict is to get to lose-lose; a situation where everyone in power changes their approach regarding the current situation, in exchange for a future state they can live with.